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Sweeter Than All the World by Rudy Wiebe
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Sweeter Than All the World (edition 2001)

by Rudy Wiebe

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501233,859 (3.2)8
Member:Walter_Miedema
Title:Sweeter Than All the World
Authors:Rudy Wiebe
Info:Knopf (2001), Edition: First Edition, Hardcover, 438 pages
Collections:Your library
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Tags:history, martyrs, mennonites

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Sweeter Than All The World by Rudy Wiebe

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wo interwoven plot lines make up this novel. The first is the story of Adam Wiebe (same surname as the author), a physician living in late 20th century Alberta, and obsessed with finding meaning from his ancestral past. The second story follows some of his Mennonite ancestors as they are chased by religious persecution through Europe—from Counter Reformation Antwerp and Friesland where some were burned at the stake, to 17th century Danzig were one, also named Adam Wiebe, was a prominent civic engineer, and another an artist; to Russia, Central Asia, and Paraguay. There are some particularly harrowing scenes of their torment under Stalin and during World War II.

Wiebe, an officer of the Order of Canada, is a masterful writer who ties these two storylines together to create both one—and many—stories. Ultimately, however, I was disappointed with this book. I think it came down to my expectations: I expected d, e, f and he gave me f, g, h.

What I liked: The author knows his history; no problems with accuracy or anachronisms here. He based the parts about the civic engineer in Danzig on a real person named Adam Wiebe, so it is with purpose that his characters have the same surname as he does (he’s not saying that he’s actually related to this 17th century person. Wiebe is a common Mennonite last name, my mother’s maiden name in fact, and I’m not related to Rudy Wiebe and probably not to this historical person either).

What I disliked: Throughout the 436 pages, I struggled to figure out what it was that I didn’t like and what was annoying me, and I still can’t find the words for it. I think it is that the narrative is just too disjointed. He skips from one train of thought to another, and often from location to location, and I didn’t see any purpose for it. I would have appreciated a more straightforward writing style. Also, Wiebe assumes his reader is both intelligent and well-educated; he spells out nothing, but I would have appreciated a bit more connection between his dots. To enjoy this book, the reader must have a good understanding of northern European history (the Low Countries, Prussia and Russia). I think this is a flaw that limits the potential readership for this otherwise fine novel.

I’m always on the lookout for the quintessential Mennonite novel to recommend to people who ask me to explain Menno history in fewer than three sentences. I had great hopes that this would be it, but alas, I think many readers would just be confused. ( )
1 vote Nickelini | Sep 10, 2009 |
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Epigraph
You're coming home again. What does that mean?
--Joseph Brodsky, Selected Poems
Turning to the open sea
she speaks in low German.
No one can hear us now she says
except God who already knows.
--Sarah Klassen, Journey to Yalta
Dwell on the past and you'll lose an eye; forget the past and you'll lose both eyes.
--Russian proverb
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In summer the poplar leaves clicked and flickered at him, in winter the stiff spruce rustled with voices.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0676973418, Paperback)

Rudy Wiebe’s latest novel is at once an enthralling saga of the Mennonite people and one man’s emotional voyage into his heritage and his own self-discovery. Ambitious in its historical sweep, tender and humane, Sweeter Than All the World takes us on an extraordinary odyssey never before fully related in a contemporary novel.

The novel tells the story of the Mennonite people from the early days of persecution in sixteenth-century Netherlands, and follows their emigration to Danzig, London, Russia, and the Americas, through the horrors of World War II, to settlement in Paraguay and Canada. It is told episodically in a double-stranded narrative. The first strand consists of different voices of historical figures. The other narrative voice is that of Adam Wiebe, born in Saskatchewan in 1935, whom we encounter at telling stages of his life: as a small boy playing in the bush, as a student hunting caribou a week before his wedding, and as a middle-aged man carefully negotiating a temporary separation from his wife. As Adam faces the collapse of his marriage and the disappearance of his daughter, he becomes obsessed with understanding his ancestral past. Wiebe meshes the history of a people with the story of a modern family, laying bare the complexities of desire and family love, religious faith and human frailty.

The past comes brilliantly alive, beginning with the horrors of the Reformation, when Weynken Claes Wybe is burned at the stake for heretical views on Communion. We are caught up in the great events of each century, as we follow in the footsteps of Adam’s forebears: the genius engineer who invented the cable-car system; the artist Enoch Seeman, who found acclamation at the royal court in London after having been forbidden to paint by the Elders; Anna, who endures the great wagon trek across the Volga in 1860, leaving behind her hopes of marriage so that her brothers will escape conscription in the Prussian army; and Elizabeth Katerina, caught in the Red Army’s advance into Germany when rape and pillage are the rewards given to soldiers. The title of the novel, taken from a hymn, reflects the beauty and sorrow of these stories of courage. In a startling act of invention, Sweeter Than All the World sets one man’s quest for family and love against centuries of turmoil.

Rudy Wiebe first wrote of Mennonite resettlement in his 1970 epic novel The Blue Mountains of China. Since then, much of his work has focused on re-imagining the history of the Canadian Northwest. In Sweeter Than All the World, as in many of his most acclaimed novels, Wiebe has sought out real historical characters to tell an extraordinary story. William Keith, a University of Toronto professor and author of a book about Wiebe, writes: “Wiebe has a knack for divining wells of human feeling in historical sources.” Here, all the main characters share his name, and the history is one to which he belongs. Moreover, alongside those flashbacks into history is revealed an utterly compelling contemporary story of a man whose background is not totally unlike the author’s own. Wiebe sets his narrative against his two favourite backdrops: the northern Alberta landscape, and the shared memories of the Mennonite people. Sweeter Than All the World is a compassionate, erudite and stimulating work of fiction that shares the deep-rooted concerns of all of Wiebe’s work: how to make history live in our imagination, and how we can best live our lives.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:05:23 -0400)

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